Earth Day 2019: Need for Clark Fork River guardians never wanes

“A river system is only as healthy as its headwaters. That’s why we focus on all three rivers,” Clark Fork Coalition executive director Karen Knudsen said.  (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

Locals have learned to treasure the Clark Fork River, but appreciation doesn’t always translate into action. So even after years of river advocacy, Clark Fork Coalition members know their jobs have just begun.

Not so long ago, no one swam in the Clark Fork, fearing contaminated water. Now, not even winter can deter wet-suited surfers from braving Brennan’s Wave, and summer fills the river with revelers, rafts and tubes.

But river rats contribute their own kind of contamination: drink bottles, plastic bags, diapers and a myriad of other lost or tossed objects.

That’s why, even after 16 years, Earth Day’s Clark Fork River cleanup needs just as many volunteers. In fact, Clark Fork Coalition executive director Karen Knudsen said she’d like to exceed last year’s 900 volunteers and break 1,000 at Saturday’s cleanup.

“We keep hoping that, at some point, we’ll see a decline in the trash that our volunteers haul in,” she said. “But sadly, we don’t. Which underscores the fact that we’ve got a ways to go in terms of increasing watershed literacy in our communities.”

It’s not for lack of trying. For almost 35 years, the Clark Fork Coalition has encouraged cleanup and restoration projects not only along the Clark Fork River but also its tributaries, including the Blackfoot and Bitterroot rivers.

Not surprisingly, the organization played a key role in convincing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to list the entire Upper Clark Fork River as a Superfund site. Then a decade ago, it helped spearhead the removal of Milltown Dam, which helped restore the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers above Missoula.

But farther upstream, pulses of contamination from abandoned mines and tailings still damage the Clark Fork and its tributaries near Deer Lodge and Anaconda.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality is responsible for ridding the area of the toxic remnants of mining and smelting – copper, cadmium, arsenic, lead and zinc – but hasn’t moved very quickly over the past decade.

So the Coalition is “trying to hold DEQ’s feet to the fire,” because time is of the essence, Knudsen said. Recent spring floods intensified by climate change have caused exposed tailings to slough into the river.

But not everyone likes the idea of government crews on their land, even if it’s for cleanup. So, the Coalition adopted the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach and bought a working ranch along the river with the help of contributions.

“We were probably the only buyers who were ever thrilled about the amount of contamination on this property,” Knudsen said with a smile. “It was exactly what we wanted, right in the heart of the Superfund site.”

When the DEQ finally started cleanup work in 2016, the Clark Fork Coalition’s property was the guinea pig. Coalition employees kept notes and helped out during the two-year process. They learned how much the work could interfere with ranching operations and made sure DEQ would compensate ranchers. And now that the property is cleaned up, the Coalition is selling most of the property, hopefully to another rancher.

“We learned a lot – it wasn’t seamless, that’s for sure,” Knudsen said. “But the positives were (all the) contaminated sediment pulled out of the riverbed; 125 acres of floodplain were restored; we reconnected a couple of creeks to the river and planted 20,000 willows and shrubs. It’s still a little raw, but it’s coming back. And we set the template for how other landowners would be treated.”

To further recruit locals and landowners along the river, the Coalition will hold community engagement sessions this summer to encourage people to think about the river as an economic opportunity, as well as a thing of beauty.

Along the Blackfoot River, the Coalition has worked with Trout Unlimited and the Blackfoot Challenge to restore habitat and streamflow to ensure the river can survive the challenge of climate change.

Meanwhile, opportunity is knocking on the Bitterroot basin, because DEQ is directing all of this year’s federal grants to the Bitterroot River. So Knudsen is rallying her forces to come up with restoration projects and matching funds to take advantage.

“A river system is only as healthy as its headwaters. That’s why we focus on all three rivers,” Knudsen said. “Rivers really beg us to expand our horizons, because we’re all connected by water. Contamination problems in the upper Clark Fork are Missoula’s problems; flow problems in the Blackfoot and the Bitterroot are Missoula’s problems. And we need to be thinking downstream.”

Right now, however, a big Coalition focus continues to be the former Smurfit Stone mill site just outside Missoula. That’s appropriate: The Clark Fork Coalition was created because of the mill.

In the early 1980s, Congress, concerned about protecting the health of Americans and the environment, created new regulations limiting the pollution that industries could discharge into streams.

Champion International, the Frenchtown pulp mill’s owner at the time, couldn’t meet the standards and requested waivers, Knudsen said. Locals weren’t pleased.

“People said the river isn’t a waste receptacle – it’s our life. There was an upswelling of interest. Buses from Anaconda, from Sandpoint, poured into Missoula for hearings. There was a real grassroots opposition to the state even relaxing the standards. Out of that momentum, the Clark Fork Coalition was born,” Knudsen said. “That mill is near and dear to our hearts.”

Almost 35 years later, the Coalition is still pushing for the mill to meet standards, only this time, it’s to finally rid the floodplain of years of toxic buildup. To achieve that, groups like the Clark Fork Coalition must push to overcome the lack of resources and reticence of federal agencies overseen by an industry-friendly presidential administration.

“We do feel a sense of urgency and will continue to try to impart that to the agencies in charge of the cleanup. This is an area where we really need the public to engage. So we’re going to work hard to share information and give them a pathway to action,” Knudsen said.

For those interested in a fun pathway to action, the Clark Fork River cleanup begins at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday at Caras Park. A barbecue will follow at 1 p.m.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.